B.G.’s first female mayor hopes to inspire others

Her selection leaves Vancouver as only city in county to never have had a woman lead it

By Ray Legendre, Columbian staff writer

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Past Clark County female mayors

Elizabeth Cerveny (La Center)

Gladys Doriot (Ridgefield)

Sylvia Fields (Woodland)

Leone Foglia (Woodland)

Nan Henriksen (Camas)

Robin Jones (Woodland)

Stacee Sellers (Washougal)

BATTLE GROUND -- At a recent gathering of Clark County mayors, one of Battle Ground Mayor Lisa Walters’ peers pulled out her chair from the table so she could sit.

Walters laughed about Camas Mayor Scott Higgins’ innocuous gesture afterward. She has always grabbed her seat at the table. Her new status as Clark County’s lone female mayor will not change that about her, she said.

Walters became Battle Ground’s first female mayor and at least the eighth in county history last month when her fellow council members appointed her to succeed Mike Ciraulo. Vancouver is the county’s only city to have never had a female mayor.

A mayor’s gender does not make them more or less qualified, Clark County elected officials agreed, but when a person is a pioneer of sorts, like Walters is in Battle Ground, different challenges can arise.

“People sometimes feel performance pressure,” said Amy Wharton, director of Washington State University Vancouver’s college of liberal arts. “If you make a mistake, it won’t just reflect on you; it will reflect on the entire category.”

Women account for just 17.4 percent of mayors of U.S. cities with populations of more than 30,000 people, according to Rutgers University’s Center for American Women and Politics. Eight Washington cities, including Tacoma and Spokane, appear on the list. Battle Ground does not because its population is 17,571, according to the 2010 Census.

Overall, 60 women serve as mayor in Washington, a total that equates to roughly 21 percent of the state’s towns and cities, the Association of Washington Cities said.

‘Lot of eyes on me’

To say Walters never expected her name to appear in such select company would be a gross understatement. She once considered her name and politics as oxymorons.

Walters sat on Battle Ground’s council more than a decade before becoming mayor. On the council, she preferred working behind the scenes. It was only in recent months, when Ciraulo indicated he would step down and other council members encouraged her to step up, that she considered the mayor’s seat, she said.

Now, she is the face of the council and city, and, as such, has to handle expectations while maintaining balance in her public and private life.

“As a woman, I worry about that more than the men before me,” Walters said. She added, “There’s a lot of eyes on me right now making sure I do the right thing.”

The county’s other mayors have been supportive of her transition, she said.

“It’s easy to fit in, because we all want to do what’s best for our city,” Walters said. She also credited Ciraulo and Battle Ground City Manager John Williams for aiding her. Williams runs the city’s day-to-day operations. The city’s mayor runs council meetings and represents the city at various functions.

‘Never found a door closed’

Nan Henriksen blazed a similar trail to Walters’ three decades ago in Camas.

When Henriksen decided to seek the mayor’s seat, she encountered some residents who refused to vote for her based on her gender. However, more voters evaluated her based on her council record and she won the election. She served as mayor from 1983 to 1992.

The reason more women have not followed Henriksen’s path is often complex.

Whereas men often have a wife to support them, make medical appointments for children and go shopping for groceries, women often must have more flexibility to assume a time-consuming position like mayor, Henriksen said.

Once in power, women are judged the same as men, the former mayor added.

“If you’re organized, well-prepared and have the greater good at heart, even in those days, I never found a door closed because of my gender,” Henriksen said.

Similarly, gender has not factored into her legacy.

“What Nan is remembered for,” Higgins said, “is not that she was a woman or a man but that she set the vision for Camas for the next 20 or 30 years.”

‘A lot of strong women’

Counting Walters, women occupy 14 of the 53 seats on city councils in Clark County councils and the county’s board of commissioners -- a four-seat increase from November.

Washougal has the county’s only majority female council with four women. Camas has three women on its council, and La Center and Vancouver have two each.

Elected officials across the county do not view the uptick in women council members as a trend, but rather a natural ebb and flow.

A change in networking dynamics would be needed to inspire a sustained increase in local politics, Wharton predicted, noting the inspiration to run for office often revolves around who you know.

“A lot of people who get into those positions don’t wake up in the morning and say, ‘I want to run for office,’” Wharton said. “For women, those networks don’t provide a pathway into politics as much as they do for men.”

Walters did not seek out the mayor’s seat. However, now that she holds it, she hopes to inspire other women to seek local office.

“There are certainly a lot of strong women in our community,” Walters said.

Ray Legendre: 360-735-4517; http://facebook.com/raylegend;http://twitter.com/col_smallcities;ray.legendre@columbian.com.